Death Penalty Quandaries

Currently implemented in 30 states, the death penalty was re-legalized by Supreme Court decision in 1977. Since then, 552 people have been executed, while another 3,000 or so remain on “Death Row.” Much of the current controversy over the death penalty surrounds the circumstances where it should be applied—many argue that it has been unjustly implemented insofar as unequal application among racial and socioeconomic classes is concerned. Over 50% of death row inmates are black or another minority—an apparently hugely disproportionate number when one considers this demographic only accounts for 17% of the general population.

I would like to address, however, the merits of the very concept of the death penalty rather than argue merely over its application.

On one hand, it is widely held—both legally and in the court of public opinion—that the death penalty is both constitutional and morally right. When the accused has been convicted of reprehensibly violent crimes, and guilt is well beyond any discernable doubt, many argue that it would be ridiculous to allow the criminal any chance of killing again. While the threat of future crimes is certainly understandable, and in many cases legitimate, two major objections come to mind.

First of all, our criminal justice system is allegedly predicated upon rehabilitation. Capital punishment, quite obviously, leaves no room for rehabilitation. It is the ultimate punishment. No judgment is more final than that needle.

Furthermore, even if it were morally sound and just to decide that men—in certain circumstances—are completely beyond help and incapable of rehabilitation, given that the death penalty is the one irreversible punishment, shouldn’t our courts be proven incapable of error before given the responsibility to determine such a sentence? A system that allows the potential for innocent men to be sentenced to death is conceptually hard to justify.

In the past, we have been able to delude ourselves into thinking that our courts—while occasionally capable of error, as all human constructions are—were by and large sound and reliable systems through which a guilty man is punished and an innocent man is excused. In current years, however, given developments in DNA forensics, countless errors in verdicts of capital punishment cases have been proven. With this new awareness of the frequency of wrongful convictions in capital cases, it is hard to argue that the system should remain in place as it stands. In no just society should men be condemned to death for crimes they did not commit.

Thus, not only is the death penalty apparently applied on discriminatory and racially oriented grounds, but it denies any possibility for meaningful rehabilitation and holds the treacherous capacity for irrevocable error.


waffle said...

Frankly, I disagree. I think that the focus should not be on the number of innocent men sentenced to death but on the impact that the death penalty has had on a larger scale. I realize that sentencing an innocent man to death is a heinous crime itself but if one can show that the death penalty has deterred a significant amount of crime then there are now two competing values. For example, abortion or self-defense are both cases where human beings may be killed for a certain "greater reason." But these cases both involve modifications to the definition of "innocent human being." There's an even better example: say there's a man who is carrying a backup that, unbeknownst to him, is filled with explosives. Let's say he's walking into a mall and you know that the explosives in his backpack are about to go off just as he enters. Let's also say that the only way to prevent him from unintentionally killing some twenty people is for a sniper to shoot him in the head so he falls dead outside the mall. Is a sniper therefore justified in taking out this man? We must remember that he is an innocent adult human being. The point is that most people would find the appeal in numbers (20 vs. 1) compelling and answer yes. Moreover, this is an example of weighing the larger picture against the unintended consequences. So the question is not whether there have been a few false positives in the system, and there will be, but whether the intended benefits, say, of deterring crime have been accomplished in a manner as to offset the unfortunate injustice.

mmd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mmd said...

While I'm not sure where I stand with regard to the death penalty, I do have a few observations. First of all, mmk states that "our criminal justice system is allegedly predicated upon rehabilitation." While this is a common perception, it is definitely not universally true. For example, in California imprisonment may be talked about in terms of rehabilitation; however, the California penal code explicitly states that "the purpose
of imprisonment for crime is punishment." Additionally, it states that "this purpose is best served by terms proportionate to the seriousness of the offense." Thus, arguing that the death penalty is incongruous with the criminal justice system is not a universally valid argument in the US.

Additionally, in response to mmk's assertion that "in no just society should men be condemned to death for crimes they did not commit," aren't there multiple other examples of governmental policies that result in unwarranted death? One such example is raising the interstate speed limit for the benefit of the long distance trucking industry. This does not raise nearly the controversy that the death penalty does, but it indubitably has led to multiple deaths. The main difference with capital punishment seems to be the degree of certainty that the death follows the mistake rather than a fundamental difference in kind.

Vladimir Estragon said...

Regarding the purpose of criminal justice systems, I think that few would disagree that the purpose of the criminal justice system is to reduce crime - more specifically, to prevent people from attempting to commit crimes. There are two factors affecting a prospective criminal: their motivation to commit crime (based on need, anger, boredom, stupidity, etc) and the degree to which they are deterred from committing the crime by the potential consequences. By stating that the purpose of crime is punishment I believe that the intent was to specify that it is the second of these two factors that imprisonment was intended to affect. In other words, the purpose of imprisonment is deterrence. Recently more people have been thinking that the criminal justice system as it is is not doing a good enough job, and perhaps it should also address the other term of the equation. Despite this shift in attitudes, the overall purpose of the justice system is to prevent crime, and theoretically people would agree (as is the premise of the original argument) that getting killed is less desirable than being imprisoned - therefore the death penalty would deter criminals more than imprisonment would.

As for DNA evidence showing that verdicts have been incorrect - those cases took place quite a while ago, which is relevant for two reasons. First, the verdicts in those cases were more likely to have been influenced by the cited jury biases, and more importantly, such cases that take place today and in the future (read: the facts about which are relevant to a discussion of future death penalty policy) would convict innocent suspects because... DNA evidence techniques exist, and therefore would prevent the very types of cases that are being cited.